An island continent in its own right, Australia is the world’s sixth-largest country. European settlement began over 200 years ago. Most Australians now live in cities along the coast.
Geography: Located between the Indian and Pacific oceans, Australia has a variety of landscapes, including tropical rain forests, the arid plateaus, ridges, and vast deserts of the “red center,” the lowlands and river systems draining into Lake Eyre, rolling tracts of pastoral land, and magnificent beaches around much of the coastline. In the far east are the mountains of the Great Dividing Range. Famous natural features include Uluru (Ayers Rock) and the Great Barrier Reef.
Climate: The west and south are semi-arid with hot summers. The arid interior can reach 120°F (50°C) in the central desert areas. The north is hot throughout the year, and humid during the summer monsoon. East, southeast, and south west coastal areas are temperate.
People and Society: The first settlers arrived in Australia at least 100,000 years ago. Today, the Aborigines make up around 2% of the population. European colonization began in 1788, and was dominated by British and Irish immigrants, some of whom were convicts. White-only immigration drives brought many Europeans to Australia, but since the 1960’s multi-culturalism has been encouraged and most new settlers are Asian; Cantonese has overtaken Italian as the second most widely spoken language. Wealth disparities are small, but Aborigines, the exception in an otherwise integrated society, are marginalized: their average life expectancy is around 11 years less than other Australians. The new Labour government from 2007 has overturned right-wing policies on illegal immigration and has signed up to limiting greenhouse gas emissions.
The Economy: Efficient mining and agriculture: particular success in viticulture. Large resource base: coal, iron ore, bauxite, and most other minerals. Protectionism abandoned to open up Australian markets. Concentration on trade with Asia: China’s expanding demand for minerals spurred a return to strong economic growth after the 1997 Asian financial crisis. China now rivals Japan as Australia’s major trading partner. Upward trend in Asian visitor arrivals has strengthened tourism.
Insight: Sydney has the world’s largest suburban area, a conurbation so vast that the city is twice as large as Beijing and six times the size of Rome
Official Name: Commonwealth of Australia
Date of Formation: 1901
Population: 21.3 million
Total Area: 2,967,893 sq. miles (7,686,850 sq. km)
Density: 7 people per sq. mile
Languages: English*, Cantonese, other
Religions: Various Protestant 38%, other 36%, Roman Catholic 26%
Ethnic Mix: European 90%, Asian 7%, Aboriginal 2%, other 1%
Government: Parliamentary system
Currency: Australian dollar = 100 cents